Marty’s New Book Explores Mysteries of the ChildBy: Mary Loftus
The objects of church historian Martin Marty’s affections these days are not philosophical abstractions—they are real children, playing on swings, kicking soccer balls, and trying the patience of their parents.
Children are “the great disrupters, the great interrupters, who humanize us along the way,” says Marty, who has crafted his most recent book, The Mystery of the Child (2007, Eerdmans Publishing), as an antidote to the ubiquitous “how-to” guides for caretakers.
This profound, inspiring examination of the child is the culmination of Marty’s stint as co-director of Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion’s (CSLR) three-year research project, “The Child in Law, Religion, and Society.” It is also part of an eleven-book series on “Religion, Marriage, and the Family,” edited by Don S. Browning, Alexander Campbell Professor of Ethics and the Social Sciences Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and John Witte Jr., CSLR director and Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law at Emory.
Most writing about children, says Marty, begins with a particular problem that needs to be solved.
“The child is undisciplined, abused, autistic—whatever the case may be, the child in some strange way is reduced,” says Marty, a great-grandfather as well as Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. “I propose the alternative: that children are mysteries who invoke wonder. Problems have potential solutions, but mysteries don’t. The deeper you go, the deeper you go.”
As co-director of the child project, Marty began to reflect upon not just the ways children are defined under the law and through religious writings, or how they can best be protected or educated, but on the very essence of the child.
Children, he concludes, are “something more and other than the combination of parental genes—indeed, they are constant sources of inspiration and renewal.”
Marty admits to drawing upon his own broad experiences as father of six children (including two who were adopted), nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, although he steers clear of providing personal childrearing anecdotes.
Instead, he uses references from contemporary poetry, religious scripture, philosophy, Christian ethics, psychiatry and biology—as well as heavily quoting other writers who “behold the child as a subject of intrinsic worth”—to construct a wide-ranging exploration of the qualities of responsiveness, receptivity and openness that characterize children’s interactions with the world.
Marty urges caretakers to approach children with appreciation and respect instead of as objects to be controlled; he argues for the thoughtful enjoyment of children rather than the arbitrary imposition of adult will. “This is not a book against discipline,” Marty emphasizes. “It is simply against beginning with the idea, ‘My job is to discipline the child.’ Don’t do that simply by the fact that you’re bigger, older, and more powerful.”
Education of the child, he says, should be based on imagination, creativity, and playfulness. Children are intuitive philosophers who often ask deeper and more profound questions than they are given credit for: “When a child asks ‘What’s behind the sky?’ and you say, ‘Oh, isn’t she cute,’ or ‘That’s a dumb question,’ you start killing it off.”
Marty, who is approaching 80, also encourages adults to maintain a childlike attitude and sense of wonder about the universe. “Aspects of having been a child—or of keeping alive through the senior years something of the being of the child—should color all the phases of later life,” he says.
Parents must take special care not to view their children as a hedge against their own mortality, whose lives they can shape and safeguard and preserve. The child, like all else in life, is temporal, and will grow and change, encounter chance and accidents, and “will someday disappear without a trace, be this day in a decade or after millennia.”
Marty pauses in the interview to look out his studio window and comment on the sun glinting off Lake Michigan, a moment that is soon gone and will never come again. “You cannot control the mysterious,” he writes. “It will always be finally beyond reach.”
The only thing to do, he maintains, is to appreciate the child here, in the moment, as she swings, arching her way up toward the fathomless sky.
The Center for the Study of Law and Religion is home to world class scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have shaped and continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives. The scholarship of CSLR faculty provides the latest perspectives, while its conferences and public forums foster reasoned and robust public debate.
Read reviews of Marty’s book:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Library Journal (scroll down)